What were the challenges you faced setting this year’s route?
I’ve done two or three in Liwa which of course I know well, but this year was asked to set a route from Umm Al Quwaim. I’d heard stories that in the past it’s been difficult to set a GNFD route in the Northen Emirates — they’ve been a bit disjointed because fences go up, restrictions come in and there have had to be last minute revisions leading to routes which were first sand, then tarmac, back to sand, in through this fence, along that pipeline etc. which frustrated drivers. So when I first set out I thought it would be a struggle, compared to Liwa. Then the 611 extension opened and I was wondering where to begin!
But funnily enough it was actually because of things like the 611, that we were forced to find a route around, somewhere we could get across it. So this year’s route leaves from the Start in a very unusual direction, because we had to get to a place where we could cross the 311 and then get around the 611. Ultimately this led to the creation of two great new sections. In these we are using several established tracks because there’s a spider’s web of them out there, but there are some occasional ridge crossings which drivers will have fun with, and which become a challenge to beginners when you’ve had several hundred cars over them. Then we connect across to Ahden where drivers will reinflate their tyres, and head into some wadis for two sections.
Then the final stage to the overnight camp is through tough dunes, for the advanced drivers who are making good time. That last section is quite challenging, but the way it always works, we know that the beginners won’t get to the difficult stuff. Of 700 entries, perhaps 300 are very capable, 200 are intermediate and 200 are complete novices. So they automatically eliminate themselves from the difficult stuff due to the time limits we put on the later stage entries, and the difficult dunes give the leading drivers something interesting to finish on.
I think we have actually created what is really a very good route; probably more interesting, in terms of variety, than Liwa. There isn’t that sense of being in the Empty Quarter of course, but it’s great in terms of distinct terrains that we cross — low dunes, tracks, really pretty stuff with lots of trees, a historic fort, red sand dunes heavily covered in vegetation, then wadis, it’s a good variety. Hopefully everybody will get a full day; interestingly because of the nature of the wadis, no-one is going to get stuck in them, so we will let people in there until 3 o’clock, and we let them go in to the final sand section up to about 3 o’clock. So people can still enjoy themselves until late in the afternoon
The sheer numbers will guarantee some tricky sections. Because I’m at control on the day, I never see the tricky spots but I know what happens — the washboard tracks build up until they become a problem, but on most of this route there are ways round, wide enough to avoid bad areas once the main highway has been carved in through the markers. If you do have to go around it’s not difficult to identify the convoys en route ahead — in Liwa you could become hidden from view but that’s unlikely to happen here.
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How long does it take to develop a route like this?
I think I did four days of just exploring, checking suitability, then stitched it all together. Of course then I found I’d got little sections that were missing, so to make it work I went back a couple of times to finish writing the road book, make these connections, and tidy things up. Sometimes it’s terrain, sometimes it’s a farm or village or private area, that causes a problem and must be avoided. Just to get into the camp, we didn’t want to use one access point with two-way traffic, and to get that organised was a headache. The terrain was difficult — a long ridge with steep climbs, then there’s a fenced off Camel Centre, so you can’t go along the edge of the road, and if you go too far, you end up in a town. But in the end I actually started at the camp site, drove out ‘reverse route’ if you like and found a way through that way.
Trickiest spots for beginners?
The first two sections are easy, they can’t go wrong. In the third section there’s some technical drop-offs but they are marked, and shown in the road book and by “follow my leader” drivers will know where they are, due to the brake lights in front. Yes it’s a fun drive but the desert is the desert and it doesn’t take prisoners, so unless I make it incredibly easy, there have to be tricky features and dunes to cross. Of course it gets worse with use and where there’s only one possible way through, which becomes churned up by 500 vehicles, that’s where the issues build up.